When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it caused an unexpected phenomenon: a hiring crunch, as many people whose jobs were disrupted decided to quit and pursue other careers or interests. It’s less clear what’s causing another local phenomenon: the swift departure of numerous key members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, only five months after he took office.
To be sure, a certain amount of turnover is normal and expected when administrations change — particular when there are deep differences in philosophy and policy, as there were between Bronson and former acting mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson. Under the city charter, the municipality’s department directors serve at the pleasure of the mayor and can be replaced at will — and several have been. But many of the resignations and firings Anchorage residents have witnessed in the past weeks and months are cause for concern — and require explanation if the mayor and his administration are to maintain the public’s trust.
The first departure that felt particularly worrisome came less than a month into the new mayor’s term, when Health Department epidemiologist Janet Johnston resigned. Johnston confirmed the decision to leave was hers. But she also said she’d given a week’s notice and then, strangely, been told to leave immediately instead — a peculiar move in the middle of a pandemic, as COVID delta variant cases began to surge. According to the health department’s website, Anchorage has yet to hire a new epidemiologist.
Another round of resignations and a firing took place recently among the municipality’s homeless response staff. After a botched transition in facility management and ADN reporting on problems at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter, including the near-death of a man there whose illness had gone untreated by staff, two members of the administration who had helped oversee shelter operations exited. Development Services Director Bob Doehl submitted his resignation in late October, and mass care branch chief Shawn Hays was fired the same week. The following Monday, homeless coordinator John Morris also resigned — but neither the public nor the Assembly, which was working with Morris on a compromise homeless plan, were told until days later, under bizarre circumstances. In all three cases, the administration gave no explanation for the departures except for boilerplate — ”personal reasons,” citing the policy of not commenting on HR actions or stating that executive appointees can be removed by the mayor at any time. On an issue as important as Anchorage’s homeless response — after his election, Mayor Bronson said it was his top priority — that’s not sufficient, and the public deserves to know more. Were any or all of the three removed because of the problems at the Sullivan? And how can we be assured that those problems have been sufficiently addressed?
Other exits from the administration have led to lawsuits. Bronson removed chief equity officer Clifford Armstrong III in early October, claiming that despite ordinance language stating otherwise, the mayor has the power to remove the equity officer unilaterally and without cause. Armstrong has since sued the city, and public money will be used to fight that suit — and to pay damages if Armstrong prevails. And city real estate director Christina Hendrickson was fired the day after filing a whistleblower complaint alleging the administration improperly hired a Bronson ally and campaign donor for a position in her office. She has also sued, and Anchorage taxpayers will be footing the bill for that lawsuit, too.
Even the mayor’s inner circle is turbulent. Craig Campbell, Bronson’s director of policy and programs, resigned Oct. 24, with little in the way of an explanation except that he was returning to a former position with Alaska Aerospace. Campbell had initially been Bronson’s chief of staff, but in another strange shake-up, Bronson moved head librarian nominee Sami Graham into that role, in what appeared to be an attempt to spite the Assembly for not confirming her. Bronson’s second pick for library director, Judy Norton Eledge, resigned on Friday amid doubts about her confirmation. The abrupt departure of Mr. Campbell — a core member of Bronson’s team — and the scant reasons given for it leaves the door open for misgivings and speculation about why Campbell headed for the exit only months after the administration took office.
Some of the confusion and suspicion about what could be going on behind the scenes of the Bronson administration stems from uncertainty about who’s holding the reins. In a recent address to the Anchorage Rotary, Bronson was quoted as saying that municipal manager Amy Demboski “runs the city,” and that he merely provides strategic direction. The voters who elected Bronson — as well as the rest of the city — deserve an explanation for whose vision is being advanced by the raft of departures, and how.
Because the fact of the matter is this: Departures, whether by resignation or firing, are expensive — even when lawsuits don’t follow. They deprive the municipality of invaluable institutional knowledge. They require searches to fill the vacant positions. They sometimes require Assembly approval. They require training of new candidates for the vacant jobs. All of that is tremendously expensive in terms of money, effort and, perhaps most valuable of all, time. The people of Anchorage deserve more transparency from their government about why the first several months of the Bronson administration have been so tumultuous — and they need to know how things are going to get better. Because right now, from the outside looking in, it’s hard to see much reason for confidence.